Wimbledon, the oldest tournament in the history of tennis, might seem like any other major sporting event you come across flipping through channels. It caters to a certain crowd and usually brings in good ratings for ESPN, but to a novice, tennis is just like any other sport: predictable and skippable. I used to think so too. Growing up, most summers and school years were spent buried in stacks of books I checked out from the library, avoiding real activity and real people. I was a self-declared bookworm, but I always felt like something was missing from my list of hobbies and I wanted to branch out. Sports weren’t what I considered “fun” and the recommendation from my mother to try out seemed daunting, but nevertheless I gave in and decided to join the team.
I started playing tennis the summer before my freshman year of high school. My first experience with tennis was with a brand new coach who didn’t know how to teach. We spent practice running track instead of learning important skills. I slowly got the techniques of playing, but still looked at the girls on varsity like a sad, lonely flounder staring in awe at other fish swimming closer to the surface. Things did not change until my junior year, with a different coach and a real chance to learn and play. I got to experience the mixed excitement and anxiety when stepping onto a court, playing an opponent, and partaking in the exhilarating competition that is a tennis match.
I’ve never been a competitive person really, but once the season started, putting a racket in one hand and a fuzzy, fluorescent tennis ball in the other felt like stepping into a whole new kind of universe. It was a new kind of joy, almost giddiness, and I felt it every time I watched a match or practiced with my teammates. I had discovered a whole other genre of life, and even though it was labeled as a sport to me it felt like raiding through the Restricted section at the Hogwarts library.
Each match we played was like cracking the spine of a brand new mystery novel: more mature than a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys, but as technical and riveting as a Sherlock Holmes adventure. Pulling up to an opposing school’s court was like arriving to a crime scene: survey the evidence, get a few details on the accident or crime (or in this instance, the opponent you play against), and begin to form a strategy on how to solve it. You might be alone or have a partner to help you figure out what to do, but either way, no one is leaving until the case is closed.
Detectives have their wits and gadgets to get to the bottom of the problem; athletes are equipped in different ways. Tennis players use different kinds of hits to place the ball all around the court: a lofty, overhead lob hit to draw their opponent to the back of the court, or even a fast serve or forehand to get the point by surprise, outsmarting their rival. Gadgets include a racket with hand-strung strings, or a tightly-wrapped grip to help hit better. No matter how one prepares for taking on the opposition, “the game is on!”
Once you take on the case and set foot on the court, the real mystery begins to play out. Like any detective, you pick up clues along the way to help counteract the opponent. Maybe they play short game and bring you up to the net a lot, only to make the point by hitting the ball behind you. Or their real strength lies in playing at the back of the court, getting to every ball whether it is hit to forehand or backhand. You discover their weaknesses and you figure out how to trip them up, catching them in the act of falling into habits. Maybe they are clever too and pick up on your weaknesses and strengths. Not keeping an eye on the side of the court or getting to the net quick enough to strike back. In the end, the motivation to come out on top leads them to play a great match, one that an audience can watch for hours.
Even a channel-flipper that stumbles upon the game can look again at the way the game plays out. Sometimes players might not be evenly matched and the game ends quickly. Then there are games where the players are observant, skilled, and play with all they’ve got. Once you see great skill and determination, you can’t help but become entranced in how they work the court and their opponent. Only one comes out on top, and like any mystery, you’ll be glued to your seat waiting to see who solves the case. Even though for me tennis is less about competition these days, any time I get to lace up my dingy sneakers and grab my racket feels like going back to being the leading lady in my own adventure story.
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